Between Social Nominalism and Social Realism
The German Ideology represented the apotheosis of Marx's early neo-Feuerbachian nominalist tendencies, coupled, paradoxically, not only with a critique of Feuerbachian materialism, but also with a growing insistence on the virtually autonomous reality of modern society vis-à-vis any particular individual. Nonetheless, "real individuals" appear prominently throughout the work: "The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can be made only in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing, and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way." Social theory did not take for granted any philosophical a prioris, humanistic or otherwise; instead, the theorist started from men and the activities they pursued within a specific material and social setting. The emphasis on circumstance and activity underlined the dynamic and intrinsically historical nature of the object the theory described: the individuals it faced underwent a "perceptible process of development" under definite historical conditions.
Yet while Marx here expressed the premises of his materialism in an individualistic fashion, he also emphasized the reality of social classes, and the social origin of religion and philosophy. Typically (in the American sociology inspired by George Herbert Mead, for instance) social nominalism and "methodological individualism" have gone hand in hand with "psychological realism" and a corresponding denial of social reality and "societal facts." But Marx's social-nominalist tendencies consisted only in taking individual acts as the ultimate source of social reality. He nowhere denied the reality of the social realm resulting from the totality of individual acts; he simply denied its independence from human action. Indeed, Marx often insisted that individual beliefs and behavior were critically shaped by such immediately irreducible social phenomena as the rules of exchange and the roles typically assumed within a given social class. Such social objects as class and the division of labor were indubitably real, to the point indeed where they could appear as an
independent imposition on the individuals ultimately comprising them.
To be sure, such social structures as class Marx held to be historically reducible to the "individual behavior of individuals" at a certain stage of material and social development; it was individuals who "created the existing conditions and daily reproduce them anew." The virtual independence of social relations from the individuals ultimately producing them arose initially from the historical sedimentation of previous human acts, which confronted succeeding individuals as a fait accompli; acts which had once assumed a vital meaning for men left to posterity merely their petrified traces and unintended consequences. Capitalist relations of exchange ratified this reification by vesting control of such institutions as the state and means of production in the hands of a few. A laborer therefore confronted institutions such as the division of labor as alien and rigid, quasi-natural objectivities limiting his own life and its possibilities. Although society consisted only of active individuals who comprised the social order through their relations and practices, the eventual outcome and final totality of these practices and relations eluded the control of any one individual.
While Marx acknowledged the relative autonomy of many humanly created social institutions and relations from the persons entering into and reproducing them, he simultaneously used the "individualistic" premises of his materialism to protest such fixed social relations. By placing social production under the control of the associated producers, communism would facilitate the return of social institutions and relations to the command of the individuals who in fact comprised them. In this sense, the real individual as a theoretical premise helped demystify the social order, Marx's theory then yielded an historical account of the genesis of social relations and institutions, and bore within itself a mandate for the conscious production of history and society by those individuals who had hitherto produced themselves, their society, and their history largely unconsciously.